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The difference between a cosmetic chemist and a cosmetic product formulator

April 28, 2018

A formulator can follow and build a cosmetic recipe but may not think too much about why these certain things hold together or they might think about it but can’t really elaborate beyond basics.

A chemist can also follow and build a cosmetic recipe but generally can explain how and why these things hold together and may even be able visualise the product they are making on a molecular interaction scale – at least to some degree.

A chemist may be a good or bad formulator and a product formulator may be a good or bad product formulator  –  what I mean here is that the formulations that either person puts together may or may not be successful physically, chemically and commercially.

In either case both a cosmetic chemist and a cosmetic product formulator generally get better at formulating with experience so long as they try new things and challenge themselves.

However, it doesn’t necessarily follow that a product formulator will understand the chemistry more with experience.  That depends on a number of things such as personal motivation,  ability to overcome internal and market bias, time and money to run experiments,  access to chemistry education and brain capacity.

I’m a chemist first, a formulator second.  I was a chemist before I was a formulator and as a formulator I’m experienced but I’m not neat and will never be able to produce the artisan amazingness that I wow over with some of the soap and bath bomb makers I have had the pleasure of dealing with.  However, what I can do is work out what is going on and why – but that doesn’t stop me from being able to make some great mistakes, it just means that once spotted, I can tell you why and then face palm myself for being such a dick.

So why am I pointing this out?

I’m telling you this because I often get asked about the courses I teach and specifically asked if I can teach how to make organic products or some other niche type of thing.  My general answer to that is that I could but I won’t (at least not straight off the bat).  What I teach is chemistry to people who want to become better cosmetic product formulators. They might also want to become cosmetic chemists and if they study a bit more chemistry and take some more science qualifications then maybe they can be that but they won’t be that after taking a basic cosmetic science course. Well, not in my opinion.

I’m telling you this because while I understand and appreciate that you don’t NEED to be a chemist to be a good formulator, nor do you necessarily need to understand the chemistry behind your products you will do better and be more efficient if you at least appreciate the science a bit.

Cosmetic formulators with little chemistry understanding either need a good memory and lots of time for trial-and-error experimentation or they will be limited to just sticking to what already exists.  Again, that’s not a major problem unless you want to be truly innovative in some shape or form. So here’s a list of times when knowledge of Cosmetic Chemistry really does save your bacon.

  • 1. When the shit hits the fan.

When a formula is not stable,  an ingredient is not solubilising,  you are getting crystals form, you have cloudiness in your product or you can’t make your product ‘set’ or your actives stable.  Just being a chemist won’t automatically solve these problems – its not a super power – but what it can do is help you investigate the problem, develop a theory and instigate an experiment to test that.  Then, hopefully (fingers crossed) you will fix the issue once and for all and life will feel a whole lot less random and unpredictable.

  • 2.  When you’ve got a tight deadline. 

Rather than just line up ten ingredient combo’s and diligently work through each one it is so much better when you can hone in on one or two potential fixes straight away.  This may not mean that you come up with a perfect customer-lovably formula straight away but that you will overcome the basic issues of stability, price and product philosophy much sooner leaving you more time to work on getting the softer elements of the formula perfect.

  • 3.  When you are trying to combine awkward or delicate actives.

Not all things play well together and if you have an understanding of chemistry you can predict this and once again short-cut R&D time.   You may say ‘well supplier data does also help here and reading that saves you time’ and it does to a point but there’s been more than one occasion when I’ve read through what the ingredient supplier/ manufacturer has written, understood the underlying science and pushed the boundaries of what they’ve said.  Remember that manufacturer and supplier data is there to sell the ingredient and make using it easy. Just like with many drugs, there are ‘off script’ ways of using these thing too.

  • 4. When you have to make the formula cheaper.

Understanding what you can and can’t pull back on in terms of percentage input or ingredient choice is something that you can gain from experience (just doing) but is made more efficient by chemistry knowledge.  This is what I call ‘formula optimisation’ and generally a good cosmetic chemist should be able to do this and maintain the results of the product while saving ingredients and money.

  • 5. When you need to substitute one thing for another.

These days so many briefs come with long ‘free from’ lists.  Having a handle on chemistry can be really key when working with the longest ‘to-don’t’ lists and saves endless google ‘research’ looking for a pre-done recipe that fits – that’s not chemistry that’s just cooking.

  • 6. When you want to boost product efficacy.

There’s a lot of science that goes on behind skin penetration of actives and while trial and error can get you so far, it’s chemistry that will get you there faster and more effectively.

  • 7. When you want to answer customer questions properly rather than just regurgitating what’s been said before.

I’d say that around 90% of what is shared on the internet is un-original, repeated, half-information with only a tenuous link to science.  I’ve had many a person say things to me like ‘as you know, raspberry seed oil is widely reported as a  UV active’ to which I usually say ‘yes, widely reported but all stemming back to one small scientific paper so basically it’s just a red hot gossip piece’.  A chemistry background does help one to read and interpret the scientific paper(s) that underpins this internet noise and it can stop us banking on something that’s actually quite tenuous.

  • 8.  When you want to assess risk. 

There are a couple of good examples of this that keep cropping up.  One is the reaction between Sodium Benzoate and vitamin C to liberate benzene, a carcinogen. This was big news in 2006 with the soft drink scandal in the USA.   

This rang alarm bells in the cosmetic world as we do use sodium benzoate as a preservative and also use vitamin C, either adding it directly as ascorbic acid or as part of natural extracts (Kakadu Plum being a popular one here in Australia).  Natural cosmetics are most likely to have this preservative and vitamin C present.   A a chemist though instead of running to the lab to re-formulate everything,  I, along with others like me, were able to run to the research and quickly ascertain that the above reaction progresses best at pH 6-7 and that it can be quelled with a cheating agent.  Cosmetic Chemists know that they can’t put ascorbic acid into an aqueous product for long without it disappearing (via oxidation) anyway, let alone if it was at a pH of 6-7 so generally these products are at a pH of 3.6-4 and utilise chelating agents.  Even in formulations that don’t have chelating agents there are other steps we can take to mitigate the risk of this, plus the fact that in the canned drink any benzene produced was trapped, whereas with most cosmetics, even in airless packaging there is opportunity for gas to escape.  So the risk profile for cosmetics is quite different.   Without chemistry knowledge it would just be a case of perpetuating the myth that these two ingredients can never be used together and that could ultimately lead to way more expensive formulations (As sodium benzoate is a cheap preservative).

I’m sure there are many more examples but these are some of the ones that sung out to me.

As a chemistry teacher I am passionate about people gaining a better chemical and general scientific literacy in order to help them become better formulators and smarter brand owners.

So when a client asks me if I can run a ‘making organic skincare’  chemistry class and I say no, I go on to explain that once you understand the structural chemistry that goes on behind a formula, you won’t need me to show you how to make an organic product (as mostly that’s just a calculator / desk top exercise), you’ll just know and how liberating would that be!

That said, I do teach using naturally derived additives as chassis ingredients as a gateway on to organic or back to synthetic so all bases are somewhat covered.

Well, I hope that’s inspired you to become a chemist.  We need more in the world so we can stop spreading rubbish fake science news.




4 Comments leave one →
  1. April 29, 2018 2:09 am

    Another excellent clarification. I am neither a formulator nor a chemist. I am an educator to the pet grooming industry. It’s my job to explain stuff to pet groomers. Your blog is one of my most trusted resources. You are a great explainer! PS. I love when you drop a shit bomb. Keepin’ it real!

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      April 29, 2018 8:24 am

      Thanks Barbara, I do love writing, it helps me vent my frustrations as well hence the occasional swearing hahahaha

  2. Jean Althoff permalink
    June 5, 2018 9:57 pm

    Your post is perfect. I am a formulator and not a chemist and everything you say is true (from my many years of experience). Recently, I decided to study science – Chemistry 100 being my first subject for exactly the reasons you outline in your article. Yes, it is a struggle for me to get my head around the subject – but I know through persevering my formulating will truly benefit – and you have given me even more reasons than I ever realised!

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      June 6, 2018 12:32 am

      Thank you so much. I think there’s nothing more satisfying than being able to look at a cosmetic product and know where all the chemicals are hanging out, what you can do to change that and how you can make things look, feel and perform better. IT’s not that all that comes together every time in practice but it’s still nice to be able to experiment with some degree of confidence about your actions. I am sure you’ll enjoy understanding things to a deeper level.

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